For almost five years, Nikki Steward has been Hollywood’s best kept canna-culinary secret. But to assume her skills are exclusive to novelty edibles would be a blatant underestimation of her talents, which are far greater than any one kitchen could realistically contain.
“A lot of people don’t expect professional black women to be a light to women who feel disenfranchised from their careers in the culinary space,” says Steward, aka Chef Nikki. “I’m also a mother. And I want to be an example to my children. Fuck what everybody else says. Do what you want to do”
Steward’s multidimensional career path is a pristine example of that ethos in action. What was initially intended to be a future in pharmaceutical technology has since expanded and evolved to fantastically unanticipated heights.
Whether it be her ultra-exclusive, celebrity-studded High End Affair cannabis dinner events, her tenure as Dave Chappelle’s personal psychedelic canna-chef, or possibly by way of Chris Rock’s recent-yet-already-infamous daytime talk show shout-out, Chef Nikki has cemented her legacy as the go-to chef for a vast network of high-minded celebs, and in doing so highlighted not only a uniquely aspirational career in the cannabis industry but also the potential of celebratory psychedelic therapy.
And Chef Nikki’s endgame goes beyond mind-blowing, horizon-expanding, culinary fame. “The end game is to be the face of normalizing cannabis in a culture that stigmatizes me for being black.”
Cooking up cannabis with Chef Nikki
We spoke to Chef Nikki about how unconventional career choices can uncover a greater life purpose, the ways ancestral plant medicine can strengthen familial bonds, and how Dave Chappelle’s mom reacted to her son’s obsession with medicated mac and cheese.
WeedMaps: You went to school for Pharmaceutical Science, why the pivot to fine dining and cannabis cuisine?
Nikki Steward: What led me to food service was more or less the lack of creativity I had in pharmaceutical science. And I felt a desire and a need to create and have other experiences outside of four walls. I really took a hobby of just cooking and having dinner parties, and I took that into training myself and preparing myself to go into that business.
My family has always been highly functioning adult professionals that use cannabis. So that’s, energetically, where I draw from. I’ve never really looked at it as a drug, you know, I look at it more like, a coping mechanism, to help me with life sometimes.
WM: How did you level up from home chef to celebrity culinarian?
NS: I didn’t go to culinary school, but I’m formally trained under chefs who are classically trained. A lot of them have James Beard and other awards but they’re not TV chefs, not at all. I also studied in various restaurants in the United States, Thailand, Central America, Europe — I just kind of traveled around studying different techniques and styles.
I also quietly did cannabis infusion things for artists to travel with discreetly that weren’t typical candy. I was creating experiences that were a lot more savory. And a lot more, you know, just kind of more balanced. It wasn’t like, “let’s try to get fucked up.” It’s more like a vibe.
WM: When did this low-key edible hustle evolve into producing events like the High End Affair?
NS: My first actual cannabis-infused dinner party was for Snoop. I was asked by Snoop’s management if I could handle a cannabis-infused party dinner party for 250 people, which was already mind-blowing, although, for me, it’s a very meticulous process. I’d measured and dosed people in smaller numbers, so when I got a call to do 250 people I was like, “Woo! – hold on now!”
That was in 2017, And It kind of took off from there. I decided to offer those same experiences that I was doing for celebrities to the general public, that’s the High End Affair
WM: Was high profile cannabis event production always your endgame?
NS: Well, the High End Affair was part of the endgame. Another endgame normalizing cannabis, being a light of positivity to other women — currently, I only hire women on my team. I have one guy, one male that works for my team in the kitchen, and it’s my boyfriend Josh. My 18-year-old is a freshman at Spellman, my other daughter is in eighth grade. I also want to be a light to them. There’s a lot of endgames for me, constantly.
WM: Speaking of endgames, has the time you’ve spent with celebrities given you any designs on media for yourself?
NS: I decided I wanted to develop my own show, Around the Pot, which I’m doing with Weedmaps. Food Network asked me to be on Top Chef and Chopped, but I’m too old to be in a competition setting or living in a house with randoms. I got kids. This is my actual job that I do every day and I don’t need to compete for notoriety or pride. I just wanna work and do a good ass job at what I’m doing.
I fell asleep to Food Network last night, and I woke up this morning and called my sous chef, Linda, and I’m like, “I’ve been watching Food Network off and on for the last five hours and I have not seen one black woman at all. It’s all these little tiny white women on the pioneer frontier, with gentrified versions of what we would eat.”
And she’s like, “I know girl, what we gonna do?” And I said, “we going to keep doing what we’re doing, every day, like Pinky and the Brain trying to take over the world.”
WM: Aside from a frontier gentrification respite, what can fans expect from Around the Pot?
NS: It’s basically a behind-the-scenes look at what I’m doing now, but with celebrities. I’ll be teaching them how to cook with cannabis — well, teaching them to cook in general, but also teaching them how to safely infuse their food. It will be a big ass food truck, so we’ll be able to pull up to a celebrity home and cook with them inside the food truck.
I don’t want to be the Martha Stewart of cannabis, she’s cool, I mean, she really is a low key B, but I need to be something else. I don’t want to do cookie-cutter, I want to feel different and cool and fresh and identifiable. I’m black, I’m a woman. And I’m a chef. That’s all up against me because it’s a white boy’s game. Black dudes will get in there before white women, and then white women and then black women and it’s like, and I’m just telling it like it is, we taught all y’all motherfuckers how to cook!
WM: That ancestral POV extends to your work with psychedelic plant medicine as well, is that right?
NS: Mushrooms are part of the high-end experience privately. I won’t do it for everyone; I’ve got to really fuck with you, but we are on task to bring culinary psilocybin experiences to decriminalized markets.
We see an opportunity for exposure to wellness and education. People didn’t think that they could use psychedelics for mental balance and wellness. And, you know, mushrooms have been used culturally by a lot of indigenous people, including African people, for a long time. l understand it as a sacred medicine that you can use as a tool to heal yourself.
We get trip-sitter training, we’re getting energy worker training. Cannabis won’t open up your third eye the way psychedelics will, especially psilocybin. So often, people are unloading and they’re downloading onto you, not intentionally, but because you’re opening up yourself to this space. There’s a great release.
WM: Since Chris Rock spilled the beans on Ellen and your psilocybin secret is out, do you see your position as a cannabis chef publicly evolving to something more like a modern medicine-woman, or even a contemporary shaman?
NS: I feel so passionate about this, I’m not out here to get-rich off mushrooms and cannabis. Of course, I want to make money, but I also want to be purposeful.
I used mushrooms to help my Grandmother transition last year. You regenerate neural pathways every time you take mushrooms, so someone who had a stroke, whose neural pathways are damaged, why not? That’s what I was doing with my grandmother, after she would do a microdose of shrooms I was able to get her to eat and I would just wheel her outside so she could hear the birds and feel the breeze and look at the clouds move. And she wasn’t able to speak, but I could tell in her eyes that she was with me.
The woman that I get my readings from told me, “I need you to understand your ancestors want you to stop doubting yourself. Let’s level out the anxiety because you’re stepping into your full strength as a medicine woman.” And I was just like, “Oh Shit!” I’m still apprehensive because of how the world sees it. And so it’s really up to me to retrain minds and talk to people.
WM: And food is such a perfect vehicle to bring these esoteric concepts together. What dish is most requested from Chef Nikki’s kitchen?
NS: Dave (Chapelle) tells the story all the time about being high on my mac and cheese. And he tried to explain it to his mom and she looked at him so crazy like, “what are you talking about?” So whenever I work for Dave, I always keep a little mac and cheese tucked away, because Dave is always telling somebody, “I bet you she has it.”
WM: Last question — what are you smoking on tonight?
NS: I’m in Atlanta right now, this week is my fortieth birthday. I’m supposed to be flying to Tulum tomorrow, but Dave’s wife called me and was like, “Yo, is there any way you could work Friday Saturday and Sunday? We got Chance the Rapper and his family, we got all these people coming to the house,” and I’m like “Alright!” I changed my plans today, fly back to Ohio, go back home on Monday, so…
Honestly, I get so much weed from people, I’m smoking just to be smoking! But my favorite cannabis brand is Viola. Al Harrington is a good homie of mine, and I trust everything they put out flower-wise.
Photo courtesy of Chef Nikki